Debating unreality: Listening to “the other side” is overrated if we can’t agree on a shared reality

Performative civility prevents us from achieving real progress

Protestor holding up an “enough” sign
Debating the challenges of our time is impossible without an agreed-upon set of facts. Liam Edwards, Unsplash

By: Olivia Visser, Staff Writer

You’ve heard it before: “Both sides have their issues.” Or even, “Both sides of political discussions deserve to be heard.” Popular media often promotes the value of civility, which mostly involves an empathetic approach towards “the other side.” However, it’s not always appropriate to consider both sides of an argument. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t listen to others’ opinions. Listening to the other side can be valuable, but it’s meaningless if we can’t agree on a shared reality or values.  

As a direct result of discrepant facts, both sides of a discussion don’t always have equal value. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins, vaccines, and its very existence. Both sides are not equally valid when one group’s argument lies mostly in falsehoods. The extensive peer-reviewed research conducted on COVID-19 is far more credible than fringe news sites that spout conspiracy theories. 

There’s probably no better long-term example of how distinct citizens’ realities are than the issue of climate change. It’s long been established by the scientific community that climate change poses a direct threat to humanity. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that increased climate events like “heatwaves, droughts, and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds.”  

Climate deniers either downplay or outright deny reality. But climate denial, like COVID-19 denial, is not a harmless opinion.

In part because weak facts underpin their worldviews, “listening to the other side” reveals a severe conflict of values. At the start of the pandemic, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, pushed for a swift reopening of the economy. He told Fox News, “Those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.” That’s great for you, Dan, but some of us enjoy being alive more than working. On COVID-19, one side’s arguments directly affect some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Conspiracy theorists put the lives of immunocompromised people at risk by spreading disinformation discouraging mask use, vaccines, and social distancing. That’s more than just a difference in opinion, it’s dangerous. 

Much like COVID-19 conspiracies, the effects of denying climate change will impact the world’s vulnerable populations the most. Unsurprisingly, the richest countries are the biggest contributors to carbon emissions: China, the United States, and the European Union are responsible for 41.5% of global emissions, while the “bottom 100 countries” account for only 3.6%. Climate denial rhetoric in those countries prompts inertia when we should be calling on governments and corporations to decrease their emissions alongside the rest of society. 

Clearly, there are discussions that require privileging one side over the other. “I hate coffee” is a difference of opinion, while “COVID-19 doesn’t exist” is a lie that can kill people. There is an important distinction between letting someone speak and actively engaging with their opinion. You don’t need to participate in conversations that compromise your values. It’s time we move beyond valuing all opinions equally and shift our focus toward upholding verifiable truths.